We each have a hero within. Leaders speak to that hero and draw her out with words of hope and encouragement and life. Leaders speak from their beliefs and lead with their why. They first inspire us, then inform us. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied millions with a dream, not a plan. Words are powerful. Words can motivate and create or demoralize and destroy. Do your words speak to and inspire the hero within others—to their dreams, their visions, and their best selves—or do they silence them? Your words have that power. If you’ve listened well, you will know your team well—and how to fill them with fire.
“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.”
- John Buchan, Former Governor of Canada
Communication begins when someone becomes aware of us, not just when we start talking. Eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures—are you paying attention? People say a lot without saying anything at all. When it comes to words, leaders listen first and speak second. Active listening requires selflessness. Stop thinking of what you are going to say next and start paying attention to what the other person is saying right now. Maintain eye contact, don’t look at your phone, and ask insightful follow-up questions. Lastly, learn the other person’s name. There is no trick to this. Simply ask until you remember.
“Silence is sometimes the best answer.”
Dalai Lama, Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of Tibet
Thoughts are things. They shape our internal landscape, which creates our external landscape. Enthusiasm attracts enthusiastic people. Creativity attracts creative people. Strong values attract values-driven people. Get it? We become—and attract—what we believe. So are you focusing on the possible or the past? On being positive or pessimistic? Of course, blind optimism isn’t practical or prudent. Thinking things are perfect won’t make them so. However, thinking something possible is the only place to start. Your feet will follow your eyes. What you believe shapes what you see, how you act, and who you become.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
- Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist
When your day in the spotlight does come—and it will—how will you respond? Will you consume the power or share it? Absorb the attention or reflect it towards those around you? The secret handshake of great leaders is humility. They don’t need to boast or brag. They don’t need others’ approval or all of the credit. Leaders use their strength for service, not status. Instead of keeping power, they give it away. Instead of taking credit, they share it generously. For this, leaders are given more of both. Humility makes the great greater—a paradox indeed.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”
- Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism
Leaders, first and foremost, lead themselves. Self-leadership happens in the small, quiet moments of everyday living when no one is looking. Your character is the accumulation and culmination of each one of your actions—big and small, known and unknown. Make excellence a part of all you do. Make each moment your masterpiece. As Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, “Shine your shoes for the [lady] in the back row.” Don’t worry if no one notices because someday—after many moments of just you, your dream, and your daily task—they will. It’s hard to hide brilliance and beauty and a job well done.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
- Aristotle, Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist
Words are only worth so much. People want proof. They want to be shown how, not just told how. They want to see results, not just be promised them. They want to see you in the trenches—buried in the muck, getting your hands dirty, co-laboring with them. People have an inherent tendency to repeat what they see. This is called the Law of Emulation—the time-tested principle of leading by example. Any inconsistency between word and action will lose you followers. So roll up your sleeves and dig in, enthusiastically engaging at every level of the organization while modelling the way.
“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”
- Ken Kesey, American novelist and countercultural figure
Become comfortable being uncomfortable. As a leader, you will have to navigate a world of ambiguity. Fear not. Live true to yourself, stay confident in your calling, and focus on the next step forward. Remember, men and women of action are favored by the goddess of good luck. They’re also followed. Courage is contagious. People are willing to jump into the unknown if someone else goes before them. Create the conditions for others to follow you without risk—accept blame fully, but share credit generously—while preparing for the unknown as best you can. You can’t predict the future, yet there’s no need to go into it blindly.
“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”
- Douglas MacArthur, Former five-star general of the US Army
We all have insecurities and self-pity sob stories. I’m not likeable. I’m not good-looking. I’m broke or broken. I’ve made a big mistake in the past or my parents made it for me. These victim stories can be narratives that we repeat to ourselves as an excuse to wallow or withdraw. It’s true that life is not fair, but in one thing it does not discriminate: hardship and heartache. This is the harsh reality of the human condition. But you do have a choice. Choose to learn from your past, work on your areas of weakness, and live an empowering victory rather than a victim story. The next chapter is always yours to write.
“The biggest threat to your future is the past you won’t let go.”
Lead from your authentic self. Trying to be someone else will eventually break you down, blur your vision, and alienate followers. Fakes are eventually found out. Fortunately, there are as many types of leaders as there are people and personalities. Just be the best version of yourself that you can be. Others will respect you for it because it gives them permission to do the same. They’ll also love you for it because it allows them to get close to you. Authenticity has that effect. It creates a culture of intimacy, vulnerability, and ultimately, connectivity. The heart of leadership is connection, which always begins by being yourself.
“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”
- Warren Bennis, Scholar and pioneer in the field of leadership studies
Character is the cornerstone of leadership. Why? Because trust is the result of character. And people will only follow you to the extent that they trust you. This trust can take years to build and seconds to lose, which is why leaders are leaders everywhere—at work, at home, and within their social circles and faith communities. This doesn’t mean that you always need to be the face in front. It means that you are always attentive to your internal moral compass. Honesty, humility, bravery, and determination—these character traits must follow you everywhere. They are the wake you leave behind and the crest you create ahead—they are your destiny.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States